Santo Domingo boasts many Western Hemisphere firsts COLUMBUS AND CARIBBEAN CULTURE


October 06, 1991|By Robin and Arlene Karpan

The most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen" is how Christopher Columbus described the island of Hispaniola during his first voyage to the New World in 1492.

More importantly, it was here that the epic traveler put down roots and paved the way for Spanish expansion into the Western Hemisphere.

The Dominican Republic, which occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island, is busy preparing for the 500th anniversary of that discovery in 1992. Historic sites are being restored, celebrations are planned and even the pope is invited. Visitors are discovering that in addition to some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic has the oldest colonial treasures in the Americas.

While the capital, Santo Domingo, is a sprawling city of 2 million, its historic attractions are concentrated in the colonial zone, bordered by the Ozama River, the Caribbean Sea and the remains of the fortresslike wall that once surrounded the settlement. A stroll through here is a journey to the very beginning of European expansion into the New World. In this first European city of the Americas, you'll find the first cathedral, first court of law, first university, first hospital, first viceregal court, first monastery, first religious order, first European paintings, first coat of arms . . . the list goes on.

A surprising number of original buildings remain, a few in ruins, but many restored as historic sites, museums, art galleries, shops and restaurants. The Ozama Fortress, with its turreted stone watchtower and 2-meter-thick walls, still guards the entrance to the river. The residence of early governor Nicolas de Ovando, with its private chapel and watchtower, is now a posh hotel. The Court of Appeals, where cases from throughout Spain's American colonies were heard, is now the Museum of Royal Houses. A public gallery fills the rambling house where Hernan Cortes stayed while planning his conquest of Mexico.

The more modern part of the colonial zone is El Conde Street, a pedestrian walkway lined with shops, restaurants, fast food stands, hawkers selling everything from fresh fruit to balloons, and a truly amazing number of shoe stores. Follow El Conde to the end and you arrive at the heart of the colonial sector, Columbus Park, where a statue of the "Admiral of the Ocean Seas" dominates the square.

Behind the statue stands the imposing Cathedral of Santo Domingo, the oldest cathedral in the New World. Built between 1523 and 1540, it incorporates a blend of Gothic and Renaissance design. The focal point is a small chapel, closely watched over by an honor guard of two soldiers. Behind the locked gate is a large bronze casket containing the remains of Christopher Columbus.

Well . . . we're pretty sure it does. It seems that the great explorer did almost as much traveling after his death as before. When Columbus died in Spain in 1506, he was buried in Seville. In 1544, his daughter-in law, Maria de Toledo, brought his remains to Santo Domingo, fulfilling the request Columbus made in his will to be buried here. When the Treaty of Basel ceded the colony to France in the 1790s, his remains were supposedly moved to Cuba, so as to be more appropriately buried on Spanish soil. But in 1877 a small unmarked crypt was discovered Santo Domingo cathedral. Further investigation revealed this to be the crypt of Columbus, rather than the one that was emptied the previous century. Cathedral historians are satisfied

that the crypt is authentic, but enough controversy remains to give the casket an air of mystery.

The admiral must still make one more journey. On Oct. 12, 1992, exactly 500 years after the first cries of "Land! Land!" were heard from Columbus' ship, his casket will be taken to its final resting place in the Columbus Memorial Lighthouse, being constructed across the river. This massive structure in the shape of a cross is intended to pay tribute to Columbus' adventurous spirit and to commemorate the spread of Christianity in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to Columbus' tomb, the building will house museums, libraries and cultural exhibits.

Columbus' son, Diego, viceroy of Hispaniola, didn't have to wait for his father's death to have the most lavish building in town. Like his father, Diego was ambitious, greedy and despotic. His life of privileged extravagance and his cruelty toward the Indian population were considered excessive even by the colonial standards of the day. But Diego did leave behind one of Santo Domingo's greatest treasures, the Alcazar, a 22-room stone palace built between 1509 and 1512.

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